My great grandpa, Calvin Casebeer
WALK WITH ME
By, Shannon Thomas Casebeer
Word count, 17,000 more or less
Many books are intended to provide escape through a long, convoluted plot, which is fully appreciated only at the conclusion. This is not that kind of book. WALK WITH ME is an invitation to escape with me to another place and time. As the title suggests, this little primer is intended merely as a pleasant stroll. It’s one and only purpose is to provide a pleasant diversion, a few steps at a time, anytime, and often. Share it with others who might benefit from a good leg stretching.
My story, although autobiographical to some extent, is a fictional parable about youth, innocence, faith, heritage, nostalgia, and growing old. It contains humor, bitter sweet reminiscences, and glimpses of a distant day when life seemed simple, summer was perennial, and childlike faith assured tomorrows joys.
To my beloved ancestors, and the faith and fortitude that drove them to pursue their dreams, this innocuous little parable is affectionately dedicated. THE AUTHOR
WALK WITH ME
Each and every day, each and every one of us, regardless of our circumstances, has a choice. We can squander our time fingering old welts, second guessing past decisions, and tormenting ourselves over the poor choices of others; or we can embrace a new day, brimming with opportunities for doing justly, loving mercy, and building foundations for a bright new tomorrow. Time is precious. Choose wisely.
My name is Shannon Thomas Casebeer. I was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California, and raised on a little piece of paradise called Reservoir Hill. Idyllic childhoods are mighty few and mighty far between, and I didn’t deserve one, but some of us just get lucky. Near the top of Reservoir Hill, on the banks of historic South Fork ditch and overlooking the snow-capped Sierras to the north, the coastal range to the west, the Sacramento valley to the south, and Miller’s pear orchard to the east, were the homes of my mom’s parents and her dad’s mother, Meda Eliza Camp Daniels.
Meda’s Husband, my great grandpa, Asa Wilder Daniels, arrived in Placerville in 1888, purchased 40 acres on Reservoir Hill, operated a freight service, and served for some time as Justice of The Peace. Meda’s father, Asa Steven Camp, arrived in Hangtown with his father, Clark, in 1849. Together they filed several claims in order to try their hand at prospecting, and then, after accompanying his father safely home, Asa returned to Placerville in 1854.
I have many vivid memories of walking the tree lined lane from my home on Mosquito Road, up the hill past my great grandma’s home and on to the home of my grandma and granddad Daniels. Passing Great Grandma’s window I was occasionally waved down and invited inside to warm myself by her wood range and snack on the candied figs which she’d dried in the sun before steaming and coating with sugar.
My favorite room was the kitchen. Even now I can close my eyes and picture it in every detail just as it looked those long years ago. I can see the old wood range and hear the clanking of its lids as great Grandma painstakingly brought the range to life. I remember how the nickel handles and black cast iron stove-top shone in the flickering light of the coal oil lamp as she polished them with a wax covered bread wrapper. I smell the sulfur and see the flash and flutter of the wooden match as she lit the crumpled newspaper. I hear the cast-iron clanking of the dampers being open and the crackling of the fire as Grandma carefully fed kindling to the growing flame. I remember peeking in through the open dampers at the glowing embers on the grate, watching their light dancing on the wall, and gazing up at the warming oven in expectation of the golden brown treasures that would soon be steaming inside. On a few occasions I recall sitting in her lap in the old rocking chair.
The wood range would crackle and pop pleasantly and great Grandma would carefully unfold and read aloud from the same little muslin book that had mesmerized my granddad as a child. Time with Granddad was always a special treat and rarely did a summer pass without Granddad seeing to it that the entire family enjoyed a series of camping trips high in the Sierras, where Granddad had camped with his family all his life.
All variety of kith and kin accompanied us on these woodland adventures, including Granddad’s brother and sister and of course his mom, who camped with us until age 93. As a little girl, Great Grandma’s mom, Laura Ellen Oldfield Camp, had crossed the plains by covered wagon, making the trek from Wisconsin to old Hangtown back in 1854, when the rut riddled boulevard west was often impassable, and Native Americans still thrived on vast herds of migrating buffalo. Camping was in our blood.
We camped much as the family had for generations. Granddad had built red wooden sideboards for his 1941 Chevy, so the little pickup was well prepared to house all the essentials of camping, and with the addition of a canvas cover provided snug sleeping quarters at night. I remember well crawling from my own sleeping bag at first light, in order to join my grandparents in the cozy bed of the old Chevy. I remember Granddad’s beaming smile and mass of disheveled gray hair as he peeked from under the covers. I recall how snug and warm it felt crawling under that down comforter after kicking off my moccasins on the tailgate, the feel and smell of the canvas cover rustling in the mountain air, and gazing at stars through silhouetted pines.
Once the fire was lit, Sis and I would dress quickly and join the rest of the family, warming our backsides at a stone lined campfire and anticipating the smell of coffee brewing in the graniteware coffee pot, and the debilitating aroma of pancakes and bacon sizzling on Great Grandma’s griddle. Stellar Blue Jays called from the canopy of old growth pines. The welcome sun cascaded down through the lush boughs of evergreen. Off in the distance rainbow trout snatched Mayflies from the cobalt blue surface of pristine mountain lake. And my mind’s eye envisioned my granddad’s granddad crossing the country by covered wagon long ago when Indians roamed these hills.
Such were the days of my childhood, when life seemed simple, summer was perennial, and childlike faith assured tomorrows joys. Treasure your memories, keep them fresh and never take them for granted. Even our memories can fade with the harsh glare of time.
We did lots of camping when I was a kid. We camped in an old canvas tent. I remember the sound as it flapped in the wind. I remember its feel and its scent. I remember the sound of warm rain on its roof, the comfort it offered each night. I recall how I felt looking out at the stars by the campfires flickering light; the feel of my pillow at the end of the day, when my shoulders were pink from the sun, my grandmothers kiss as she tucked us in bed, after our prayers were done. First thing in the morning the fire was lit. Great Grandma brought graniteware dishes. Golden brown hotcakes for breakfast of course and for supper fried tatters and fishes. Each day we’d go swimming and play in the sand. My granddad would take us all hiking. Sis and I watched as he whittled a cane, and the stick horses more to our liking. We’d sit by the fire in the late afternoon. I’d sit in my grandmothers’ lap. Dad would go fishing. My momma would read, and Granddad enjoyed a good nap. Later on in the evening, when supper was done, there was coffee from a graniteware pot, delicious marshmallows we roasted on sticks, and dried figs that my great grandma brought. I remember the feel of hot sand on bare feet, and melon seeds stuck to my chin, the stories of camping trips long, long ago, and the way that my granddad would grin. How the decades fast have flown; how quickly reached, September. How bitter sweet the joys we’ve known. How precious to remember. How bright the wide and starry skies. How fleeting, lives long spent. How like the stars, my granddad’s eyes, and life ephemeral, much like Granddads’ tent.
DIFFERENT PATHS & DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
As a little boy, back in the 1950s, I became very ill. My mom and dad loaded me into the old Chevy and took me to the doctor. A spinal tap determined that I had Poliomyelitis. Following the diagnosis, I spent several terrifying weeks confined to a hospital ward at Kaiser Hospital in Vallejo, California. There I saw other children struggling with the crippling disease. Some were in braces. Some were confined to iron lungs. Some never walked again. Some never left the facility. Some died.
One night, all alone in my room and scared half to death, I remembered one of my favorite books back home. The title of the little children’s book was “Jesus, A Boy’s Friend”. I began praying as only a terrified child can pray. I prayed and cried until I finally fell asleep. Several days later the doctor had good news. My symptoms were gone. They were free to take me home.
As I left the hospital, hand in hand with Mom and Dad that day, I began a path that has led me to this day. Some days my faith is just as strong as the day I left that hospital. Other days, not so much, but from that day to this I’ve set out each day to walk the path I’m given, in the light I’m given. On my very best days, I share that light with others. Each of us walks a different path, revealed in a different light. As a result, we each have different perspectives, different convictions, and varying points of view. We need to show each other a little compassion and cut each other some slack.
I was only four, but I remember well the other kids in the ward with me in the hospital. I remember incubators, braces, buckets of ice, and being haunted for years by the horrific thought of spending my entire life in an iron lung. I remember missing Mom and Dad and praying like I'd never prayed before, from that moment to this day, for anyone who suffers such a fate. I remember when I first got sick, my folks bundling me up in the old Chevy for the two mile trip to town. I remember Doctor’s Bliss and Elliot and the spinal tap that verified the prognosis. I remember being terrified and held down, and screaming “Daddy, Daddy!” at the top of my lungs, and the sound of a scuffle outside my door as they tried to restrain my father. I remember tugging my cowboy boots on and walking out of that hospital with Mom and Dad. And I remember being very, very thankful. I remember sitting in the bright sunshine back home on Reservoir Hill, and pondering the whole experience over and over. And I remember all through school befriending other boys and girls, who walked funny or talked funny, or for whatever reason, didn’t quite fit in. And it warms my heart to this very day when I see folks accepted for who they are.
GRAPE JELLY & BANANNA CREAM
Back in the late 1950s, I was in elementary school. Our bus stop was at the intersection of Meadow Lane and Mosquito road. Our bus was old number 3, and our bus driver was Mr. Vanalstien. On the south side of the intersection was a home with a brick and daffodil lined circle drive. It was a tight circle, and the arriving school bus generally careened around it at a pretty good clip. We children awaited the bus under a large, spreading oak, and at the base of the oak was our bench. I’d built the very basic bench myself by sawing two six inch cuts off an eight foot long 1” by 12”, and nailing them to the remaining board about one foot from each end. In doing so I’d created, quite unintentionally, a state of the art catapult. On the morning in question, half a dozen of our neighborhood gang were milling around innocently in expectation of the arrival of old #3, which was running uncharacteristically late. My lunch bag, containing a banana, a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, and some graham crackers, was placed on the far end of the bench for easy retrieval upon the bus’s arrival. At the sudden sound of squalling tires in the gravel, we kids scrambled to collect our gear and form a line. Unbeknownst to us, Mr. Vanalstein was ill, and our driver today was a substitute and entirely unfamiliar with our route. Approaching our circle drive wide and hot, the bus’s front tire unexpectedly clipped the edge of our bench. My lunch was launched like a rocket, scattering and sifting its contents as its orbit took it up through the oak canopy and well into the hemisphere, before it descended amid the squeals of delighted children, in the form of an aromatic shower of graham cracker crumbs, peanut butter clumps, and a fine spray of grape jelly and banana cream. The large, flat surface of the 1” by 12” proceeded to smack the side of the bus, at mach speed and with incredible force, resulting in a resounding clap of thunder, much like a full-fledged sonic boom, and ringing the entire school bus like a bell! As the horrorstricken driver hesitantly opened the door, his eyes were wide as fruit jar lids, and I’m confident he’d soiled himself. The vast majority of the bus’s occupants burst simultaneously into a mixed chorus of inconsolable sobbing and hysterical and convulsive laughter, which continued fitfully until we arrived some fifteen minutes later at our school. And I’m quite confident that many of those children remember and celebrate that event to this very day, and that others are on the mend and receiving counseling.
ONCE UPON A TIME…
The last weekend of the month was to feature the annual Bartlett Pear festival in Placerville. Besides all the usual pear, apple, and produce exhibits, there was to be a horse-shoe-pitching contest and a dance at the fairgrounds. We made a day of it. By the time the dance began late that evening, I’d had just about all the fun I could stand. My plan was to peek in, size up the festivities, and head home. Several of my toes were beginning to complain about my new boots, but I was fascinated by the prospect of trying out my new western footwear on the dance floor. Just as I was preparing to leave, I locked eyes with the prettiest little red-haired girl that I’d ever seen. She and several other young ladies were eyeing me coyly from across the dance floor, and their combined effect was more than sufficient to impair the best judgment of any naive ten-year-old, new boots and all.
I bought a mug of cider and a roasted and extravagantly buttered ear of corn, and observed the festivities from a safe distance, gleefully fantasizing about my prospects. Enthusiastic doesn’t begin to describe my state. I was exhilarated to the point of apoplexy! After finishing my refreshments, I licked my fingers; sleeve groomed my nose, and took my place alongside the other expectant onlookers, in hopes of an opportunity to join in the fun. I didn’t have long to wait. After a few minutes, the four young ladies whom I’d observed earlier began working their way around the floor, sizing up and critiquing the crowd of would-be dance partners. One by one they’d scrutinize the humiliated observers and point out their shortcomings, just as though they were considering plucked poultry on market day. “What about this one?” One would ask, and the others would offer criticisms, “too short, too tall, or too skinny!”
The most vocal, and unquestioned leader of the pack was, of course, the little red-haired girl. She had the reddest hair, the thickest freckles, and the most luxurious get-along that I’d ever seen, and as she approached, I held my breath and felt for all the world, like the ugly duckling in an ungainly gaggle of geese.
With the rest of the pack following closely and grinning with anticipation, the little red-haired girl stepped up boldly, looked me over briefly, and then stared intently into my face. I stared at my feet for a moment, bracing for rejection, and then swallowed hard and returned her gaze. “Dance?” she asked enthusiastically, and offered a soft, thin, freckled hand. My head was swimming, my heart pounded, and I was dangerously light-headed from holding my breath! I grabbed her hand, we took our place in a newly formed square, bowed to our partner, and the fiddle began to play. My new boots proved to be a bit of a challenge. The high tops were initially bothersome, and it was some time before I grew accustomed to the dizzying altitude afforded by the two inch, under slung heels, but persistence paid off, and eventually I was able to negotiate the room with a jaunty gait reminiscent of a hatchling colt!
That little red-headed temptress whizzed tirelessly and elegantly around the room, frock flying and pigtails trailing, and I galloped happily at her side like a gangly pup, thoroughly enraptured, in a state of perfect bliss! We alabamed right, and alabamed left, and dosiedoed squares and circles around that crowded complex for the better part of an hour, and all at once I became aware that my poor feet were throbbing madly in those new boots, and several of my toes were clearly in tremendous distress! Just then, the little red-haired girl veered hard to starboard, and we promenaded through the back door of that crowded dance floor and out into the dark emptiness of the dimly moonlit parking lot beyond. A thousand breathtaking possibilities flooded my mind and weakened both my knees. And then, as I wrapped my arms around that warm, moist, gingham-clad form, and her sweet, cider-scented breath filled my nostrils, the stillness was suddenly shattered by a bloodcurdling screech! “Come along this minute Mariah! It’s time to head home.” “Coming Ma.” My new acquaintance bellowed back, straightening her frock and gazing into my eyes. “You live on Mosquito Road, right? “Yep!” I responded, surprised by her sagacity. “So you’re familiar with Meadow Lane, right?” “Absolutely!” “Well then,” she continued, sketching in the sand with her toe, “We live at the Kinney place.” “I know the place.” I replied, grinning sheepishly. “Well”, she said, “If you was to happen by our gate around lunch time tomorrow, you’d likely catch me out in the yard, swingin’.”
Suffice it to say, shortly after noon the following day, my schedule, after considerable rearrangement, brought me to the front gate of the Kinney residence on Meadow Lane. The Kinney home was a rustic affair, terraced into a steep, rocky bank. There was a small, well-tended plot of ground where the family evidently attempted to produce vegetables. A veritable web of clotheslines surrounded the weathered house, each one waving a generous variety of well-worn linens and badly frayed overalls. In the yard, a Yorkshire sow spread herself contentedly in the luxurious sun, as a gaggle of diaper clad toddlers mingled with the old sow’s litter and played king of the mountain on an overturned washtub. The porch was home to a threadbare sofa, and half a dozen bantam chickens sunned and preened themselves along the railing. There were youngsters of every conceivable size and shape, everywhere. Mariah is evidently one of a baker’s dozen.
As promised, Mariah waved broadly and dismounted her swing as I approached. She introduced me to several of her siblings and suggested I meet her Ma. Mrs. Kinney was cordial enough, but her no nonsense demeanor and unblinking, head to toe assessment of me clearly suggested that I was expected to be on my very best behavior, or there’d be consequences. Having met the needs of cordiality and etiquette, Mariah suggested a walk to the creek to check on some straying siblings. Her brother, Stephen and sister, Lizzy joined our ranks and we got underway. The Kinney home was terraced into the side of a deep ravine, and at the bottom of the ravine was an immense blackberry patch. The tangled thicket achieved six to eight feet in height and sprawled for sixty feet across the gully and as far as the eye could see up and down the ravine. A wet weather stream meandered through the middle, and here and there Ponderosa pines pierced the dense canopy of briars, competing for the sunshine and littering the ravine floor with a luxurious carpet of dry needles. Several of the evergreens sported tree-forts assembled from lumber and old tin roofing the children had salvaged from the wreckage of an abandoned barn. A network of paths tunneled through the briars and Manzanita bushes connecting the forts with each other and the outer banks.
The balmy fall afternoon was almost summer-like, and between the sounds of children at play, frogs sang from the creek bank and a pair of mourning doves cooed a melancholy refrain in the distance. A well-traveled trail formed several switchbacks during its decent down the steep bank, and ended abruptly at a small clearing just inside the thicket.
From this point on, the four of us would have to crawl on our hands and knees. Earlier in the season, our efforts might have been rewarded with a bounty of juicy blackberries. The berries were long gone, but the sharp thorns remained, camouflaged by the thick purple foliage of an extended Indian summer. Despite our best efforts, the thorns snatched at our clothes, and periodically resulted in a screech and a grimace, as a determined thorn found its mark and pierced somebody’s hide.
As we approached a large Bull pine in the middle of a Manzanita thicket, a half-dozen more neighborhood kids paused and observed our approach, with first suspicion and then delight. Mariah is evidently highly prized by the youngsters for her ability to spin a terrifying yarn. The youngsters considered this unanticipated intrusion a real treat, and several little ones latched onto her skirt as we entered their hideout. “Tell us a story Mariah, please!” “Tell us about the ghosts!” Mariah smiled broadly, collapsing onto the bed of needles at the foot of the towering pine. Then, motioning for me to join her, she began her tale. “Once upon a time, there was a spooky ol’ ghost dressed all in black.” That’s as far as she got. One of the children was curious and had a question. “If ghosts are just spirit,” she asked musingly, “why do they need clothes at all?” “Good question.” admitted Mariah contemplatively. This line of interrogation piqued the other children’s curiosity, resulting in several additional questions. “If ghosts wear clothes,” asked another, “do they have to warsh ‘em? Do ghosts get ring around the collar?” This resulted in an outburst of exuberant laughter, exacerbated by youthful enthusiasm. A freckle faced boy perked up and his face shone with recognition of his opportunity to participate. “I wonder,” he said, grinning with anticipation, “If ghosts get lint in their belly-buttons.” “Ghosts don’t have bellybuttons silly!” chimed a pair of twins in unison, and the entire hollow rang with squeals of laughter.
In the middle of this jocularity, the briars rustled and in stepped several more denim clad juveniles, who’d evidently overheard the ruckus from across the hollow and come to investigate the cause of all the merriment. They seemed to sense the jovial mood of the assembly immediately. One little boy sprawled on the ground, rested his chin on his hands, and offered a yarn of his own. “You should have seen what happened at our house! There’s a big ol’ snapping turtle in our pond. The Skinner’s cow was standing belly deep, coolin’ off the other day, when that ol’ snapper swum up and bit the end right out of one of her spickets!” The kids all groaned and grabbed their chests. The response was spontaneous and only served to encourage the storyteller. “‘Before we could get a tourniquet on her,” he continued, “that old cow leaked out three buckets of buttermilk!” “Oh, go on.” said Mariah. “That ain’t nothin’!” chimed in another. “We had a big ol’ wolf trap set at our pond, tryin’ to catch a darned ol’ coon. One of them big snappers got caught by the neck. Before we could drag him out and give ‘im what for, that rascal chewed his head off and got clean away! A couple of days later he come draggin’ up the hill, fit as a fiddle and carryin’ his head in his mouth!”
At that moment a distant “Helluuu,” echoed from across the hollow. “Skedaddle,” whispered Mariah, and the entire assembly vanished into the thicket. Questioning Stephen, I was enlightened. Evidently the serenity of the neighborhood is periodically disturbed by a gang of roughnecks from Hocking Street. “Hurry up!” Whispered Mariah and she headed up the trail toward home.
As we reached the edge of the briar patch, The Hocking Street crowd was fast approaching. I figured this was all in good fun, but I had the impression there was an element of real risk in these maneuvers. Mariah and her siblings seemed anxious to get out of sight. We were still a hundred yards from the Kinney place at the top of the hill, when we rounded a bend and the trail forked. “This way,” panted Stephen, as he took the right fork. Seconds later, the four of us stood humped over and gasping for breath at the door of a ramshackle, old outhouse. At the sound of hurried footsteps close behind, we crowded into the tiny refuge and Stephen bolted the door. It was pitch black inside. The atmosphere was close and stifling, and the odor was exceedingly unpleasant! I desperately wanted to hold my breath, but we were all breathing too heavily for that. I stepped up on the business seat to help ease the crowding, and Lizzy braced herself against the door.
As I stood up on the bench, my head hit a rafter, the heat was oppressive; I was all but smothered in a veil of cobwebs, and an indignant wasp buzzed threateningly around my ears! I started to speak to Mariah, but she pressed her finger against my lips and whispered, “hush.” Her finger was only against my lips for an instant, but somehow her touch left me warm all over. As I stood straddling that outhouse seat and crouching to avoid that pesky wasp my face was just inches from the top of Mariah’s head. I could feel the warmth from her body and smell her long, lustrous hair. In an effort to steady myself on my perch, I put my sweaty hand on Mariah’s shoulder, and ever so gently she placed her hand on mine. I held my breath, my pulse quickened, and the band of ruffians arrived outside the door. There were muffled voices and stifled chuckling, and then in unison they counted “one, two, three,” and leaned heavily into the side of that board and batten john. Our fragile refuge listed dangerously to starboard, that ornery wasp planted his rapier-like stinger deep into the lobe of my ear, and both my feet, new boots and all, slipped into that big black hole!
Seconds later, Stephen threw open the outhouse door; the Hocking Street gang let out with war whoops as they disappeared down the path, and the blinding light of day rushed in on a sad and sorry spectacle. That dreadful abyss had engulfed me right up to my armpits. My ribcage was stuck tight as a cork in its terrible jaws, and a powerful aroma brought evidence; I was stuck knee-deep in that holes contents. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here! The bowels of the beast made a hideous sucking sound as the Kinney kids laboriously extricated me. My clenched toes clung desperately to my left boot, and that Godless pit claimed the other.
GROWING UP IN GOOD, OLD PLACERVILLE
Long ago when I was young, I lived on Reservoir Hill, on the family’s forty acres, outside of Placerville. I’ve traveled far and traveled wide, but few things match the joy, of memories of Placerville, when I was a little boy; recollections of the neighborhood, of cherished childhood friends, youthful adventures long ago; what joy they bring revisited again; innocent romance, holding hands, days of carefree bliss, palms caressing as we walked, the naïve delight of a chewing gum scented kiss; sweet eternal summers, crowding in a car, for picnics on the riverbank, sprawled in the pleasant sands at Chili Bar; splendid weekend outings, what happy times we had, tenting, campfires, sleeping out, horseback rides, and fishing trips with Dad; weekend excursions to the lake, Highway 50s passing cars, windshield wipers slapping time to the radio in that old Ford of ours; invigorating winters, the old town all aglow, the bell tower bedight in strings of light, and familiar storefronts glistening in the snow. I’ve traveled on the Yucatan, seen sunsets from Tulum, admired the beach at Xela, and enjoyed a moonlit swim in the lagoon. I’ve strolled the streets of Edinburgh, of Dublin and Quebec, climbed Dunn’s Falls in Jamaica and gotten mighty wet. I’ve traveled Canada by rail, seen San Francisco’s sights, sipped tea at Ghirardelli Square, and marveled at a sky alive with kites. Still, no other place enthralls, no memory more excites, than memories of Placerville and Placerville’s delights. I have no fonder memory, and probably never will, than those cherished childhood memories of growing up in good, old Placerville. SC
I enjoyed many fishing trips in bygone days with Dad. And I treasure every memory of the happy times we had. We fished the Crystal Basin, Ice House Dam, and Union Valley. We’d fish till we were tuckered out, and then old Dad would rally. We fished all day at Girlie Creek, from Wentworth Springs to Loon, lost track of time and stumbled back assisted by the moon, high in the Sierra’s where the peaks rise up forever, as though the fleecy clouds above, their summits would dissever. We only had one motor bike back when we was thrifty, so both of us rode double on my Dad’s old Honda 50. We fished above the timberline, amid grey granite boulders, way back before we had a bike, and I rode on Daddy’s shoulders. We spent cold nights at Wright’s Lake too, sheltered by the trees, and marveling at the antics of the Jeepers’ Jamboree’s; fly fished in Desolation, among its pristine lakes, with blistered toes and sunburned nose, smiling despite the aches. We outsmarted fish at upper Blue, with snowdrifts all around, and mosquitoes buzzing in our ears till they made a roaring sound; trudged through Mountain Misery till our shoes were black as tar, trolled all day with the Evinrude and smeared Zemacol by the jar! We’ve Luncheoned on the running board of Dad’s old Chevy truck, shared cold coffee and stale crackers, and counted it as luck, returned to camp with limits filled and feasted on the trout, and returned with creels empty and for supper went without. I cherish every memory, but when all is said and done, it’s not about the fishing, but a father and his son. It’s about an inconceivable bond, an indestructible tie that will be my greatest joy in life, until the day I die. Thank you God for memories of the happy times we’ve known. Thanks for all my blessings and the kindness that you’ve shown. Thanks for the very best childhood that a fellow ever had. But thank you most of all dear Lord for my ol' dad.
My dad and I had lots of favorite fishing holes when I was a kid. We fished numerous lakes and streams all around the Crystal Basin area. Some were a short distance from home and easily accessed. Others were a bit of a challenge to reach. Some trips took only a few hours. Others were overnighters. Often it was just Dad and me. Some trips were part of weeklong extravaganzas with lots of family and friends. Sometimes we bait fished from the bank with worms or salmon eggs. Sometimes we hauled the boat in and trolled the lakes with Ford Fenders and all variety of bright, shiny lures. Sometimes we fished on opening day, shoulder to shoulder with hordes of other fisherman, discarding their trash, cranking up their radios, and generally creating havoc. Sometimes we escaped the crowds and fly fished the high Sierras in streams of sparkling snowmelt amid bright granite boulders.
Above six thousand feet, the encroachment of man and civilization was only an ugly threat. Here the majestic Sierras maintained their timeless reign in unmolested grandeur. God was in his heaven, and for those familiar with the Sierras, there’s very little doubt that this is it. On this particular trip, this unspoiled wilderness was our destination. An hour or two on the road would bring us to an innocuous little lake on the edge of the nearly impenetrable stronghold of what many believe is God’s finest work. Just shy of seven thousand feet, Loon Lake perches luminously at an elevation where even the hardiest conifer must stop in wonder and admire the heights to which some peaks aspire.
Leaving our home on Reservoir Hill, just outside Placerville, this day’s travel would take us northeast into the furthermost reaches of Mosquito Road. Crossing the intimidating little suspension bridge across the south fork of the American River, we would negotiate the steep switchbacks up the hill, past the old home of the goat doctor, through the rural settlement of Mosquito, past Slate Mountain and the logging operation at Pino Grande, and arrive eventually at Onion Valley Road. From here we would proceed eastward, passed Robb’s Peak, and, ascending a rugged granite trail along Gerle Creek, arrive at long last at Wentworth Springs. Beyond this odiferous little mineral spring, Gerle Creek gurgles, splashes and meanders lazily from its snow fed headwaters, high in a desolate but awe-inspiring landscape of pristine granite, stunted conifers, and a hardy little perennial lovingly referred to as mountain misery.
It was coming up fast on sunset as we arrived at Wentworth Springs. Of course, it would never do to visit a mineral spring and not sample the vintage, so, cleaning the mud from the chipped graniteware dipper thoughtfully supplied for just that purpose, I dipped up a generous ladleful, briefly inhaled its boiled-egg-like aroma, and gallantly gulped ‘er down! Suffice it to say, I would not recommend this to a friend. If you’re absolutely determined to try this delicate bouquet for yourself, by all means, do not inhale.
Finding the rustic and extremely weathered facilities cobwebbed, vandalized, and fast succumbing to the ravages of time, we determined to setup camp on the outskirts of the tin roofed ruins, in a pleasant meadow a short distance from the creek. This little meadow was unlike anything I’d ever encountered. The luxurious grasses were all cropped off neatly, just as though a persnickety team of ornamental horticulturalists immaculately maintained the entire environment. Elephantine granite boulders stood as sentinels, curious bands of chipmunks scurried among the conifers, and, captured on the mirror like surface of the immaculate little stream, the white granite summit of the Sierras themselves glowed radiantly in the pastel hues of sunset. I circled stones and began a campfire, unpacked our gear, and hurried back to fireside, as detail turned to silhouette and darkness settled in.
Approximately a mile east of our location, beyond a series of granite peaks, are the headwaters of Gerle Creek, and Loon Lake. Barely a dozen miles beyond that, as the crow flies, occupying an ancient crater, is Bigler Lake, initially christened Lake Bonpland, and known to Lake Valley’s native inhabitants as Tahoe, which translates as “Big Water” in the Washoe dialect, or “Grasshopper Soup” if you prefer Mr. Twain’s embellishment. Stretching between here and Tahoe is Desolation Valley; a vast expanse of inaccessible canyons, impenetrable vegetation, flawless, jewel like waters, and sheer granite precipices, piercing the wispy cumulous and vying for the stars. Barely two dozen miles from here, on the eastern shore of Tahoe, lay Nevada, home of Carson Valley, Fort Churchill, and Virginia City.
Early, and I mean mighty early, the following morning, as the milky translucence of early dawn spilled into the pristine meadow, Dad and I collected our gear and set out to do some fly fishing. The fly pole was a long, flimsy, dried cane affair, comprised of three sections for easy transport, and painstakingly lubricated by applying the metal couplings to the oily area at the sides of one’s nose. Thus lubricated, they slipped snugly into place, achieving a combined length of about six feet. Applying colorful hairs and feather fragments to a tiny hook, and then fastening them securely with a wrapped and knotted thread meticulously created lures. The lures, or flies, were created in a variety of shapes and colors designed to achieve the look of assorted species of floating insects. The trick was to maintain an adequate selection as to afford something suitable to the season and the appetite of the fish.
Walking to the stream bank and carefully releasing a sufficient amount of line, Dad began dexterously whipping and extending the line until its reach was sufficient to deftly insert the fly on the glassy surface above a babbling riffle at a distance of about ten feet.
No more had the little feather fandango hit the water, than the entire surface erupted into a frenzy of flying spray and furiously flapping fish! A gorgeous Rainbow trout had struck ravenously at the little impostor, and in doing so, had embedded that barbed hook deeply into its red-gilled jaw. After several minutes of allowing the leviathan to fight and tire, Dad reeled him gradually ashore, hoisted him into the crisp morning air, grinned broadly and exclaimed, “Okay, now you try!” Within minutes I’d caught my first fish. Within ten minutes, I’d enjoyed success beyond my wildest dreams. Half an hour later, between the two of us, we’d landed a dozen dandy trout. From that day forward fly-fishing’s been my favorite vice.
Following breakfast at Wentworth Springs, we packed our gear, cleaned the campsite, and proceeded up the creek. Any semblance of a road quickly peters out just beyond the spring, and we advanced cautiously through Gerle Creek’s rugged chasm. Arriving eventually at Loon Lake, we came upon a substantial block dam.
Noting that a comparatively small dam at this juncture in the canyon’s geography would result in a substantially larger lake, and that a nearby solid granite bluff would provide ample building materials, someone has invested a great deal of time. Painstakingly boring from the top of the massive granite bluff, with hand held steel bits and mallets; holes were drilled, filled with water, and left to freeze in the frigid mountain air. The expanding ice fractures the bluff face, resulting in granite blocks about the size of large steamer trunks.
These blocks were then fitted laboriously into place to create a remarkably solid barrier in the stream bottom. Layer upon layer of these hand-quarried stones were currently in place, and had already succeeded in raising the lake level in excess of fifteen feet. This remarkable accomplishment had already achieved a substantial increase in the surface area and volume of this previously natural reservoir. Large areas of previously barren granite now provided habitat to periwinkles, minnows, and trout.
We made our way to the edge of a granite precipice, about sixty feet from the shore of the pristine lake. The outcropping provided a welcome windbreak, while the elevation offered a commanding view of the northern half of the reservoir. Gradually the wind, which had been considerable during much of the afternoon, dissipated to a whisper and then a hush. The lakes surface became still as glass, reflecting a glimmering image of the pine lined shore and the snowcapped range beyond.
Dad assembled his pole, briefly scrutinized his tin of flies, and, selecting a royal coachman, he nimbly secured the lure to his line. Several agile broadcasts introduced an amount of line into the air, which was sufficient to deliver his black-winged impostor some twenty feet across the shimmering lake. There it settled noiselessly onto the glassy surface; the trailing line settled silently behind, and Dad readied himself at his pole. Tension built and we watched and waited impatiently. We stood silently for some time, shivering with the cold and the building anticipation. A pair of waterfowl rose serenely from the far shore, a lone frog called plaintively in the distance, and all at once the lake surface literally exploded! An enormous German Brown trout erupted suddenly from the shadowy depths, snatching Dad’s offering with a ravenous fervor, and briefly launching all twenty inches of its dark undulating form out of the water and into the sparkling spray.
Dad tugged sufficiently to set the barbed hook, the trout took line, and the competition was on! The pole bowed repeatedly, dangerously near its breaking point, as Dad frantically worked his reel. Too little tension, and the wily trout would dislodge the hook and quickly dart away; too much, and the tiny conduit which currently coupled these combatants, would strain and snap and quickly end the match.
After several animated moments, the indomitable trout made one last dash, fifty feet down the shoreline, in an all-out effort to dislodge the tenacious hook. Dad fought desperately to stay on his feet, stumbling over logs and rocks, in a frantic effort to pursue his determined prey. The spirited trout maintained this gallant effort for a full ten minutes, testing Dad’s skill, and countering his efforts at each and every turn, but eventually the valiant effort took its toll. Twelve minutes into the contest the strain on the cane pole lessened, the taught line eased, and minutes later the exhausted trout lay, dorsal fanning, panting on the beach. Dad quickly ended the gallant fishes struggle, drew his blade and prepared him for the fire. Within moments I’d taken up my own post, assembled my pole, and nimbly applied my newly acquired craft. Despite my best efforts, darkness found me skunked.
I gathered wood and prepared a roaring fire. Darkness settled; the moon came out, and the stars exploded like sparks from a windblown fire. Lingering long that evening, by the light of glowing embers, I marveled at my blessings and that multitude of stars, and the incomprehensible complexity of life.
LONG SPENT FIRES
Sometimes when the moon is full and the campfire flickers low, a sudden spark lights up the dark, rekindling thoughts of long, long ago. And my mind recalls a distant day as bright embers stir the fire, days of youthful romance, wistful dreams and old desire; days when mountain meadows were lush and green and fair, when cowboys combed the hills for strays and the sound of clanking cowbells filled the air; when men donned slickers and hit the trail, despite inclement weather, when canvas tents were lamp lit and smelled of kerosene and well oiled leather. I can almost see old Hangtown, when her streets were dust or mud, when her storefronts smelled of weathered wood and gold was in our blood. In my mind, I walk her boardwalks past the Hangman’s Tree saloon, and I cross the street at Cary House, and dine there on the balcony, by the moon. From my perch I see the Round Tent as it juts into the street, with horses nosing wooden troughs. I can almost smell molasses as they eat. And across from that, the Bell Tower, with its well-known promenade, and Main Street’s old, rut riddled course, past the Court House, widening for the grade. How the old days call me back, rekindling old desires, revisiting youthful romance, and stirring coals of long spent fires. Dear God, preserve our memories of dear folks on Reservoir Hill, and grant me many fireside dreams of moonlit nights in good old Placerville.
SOMETIMES IN THE EVENING
Sometimes in the evening, when the sun is sinking low, and the pines are silhouetted, and I’ve nowhere else to go, I remember good ol’ Placerville in the distant days of yore, and I’d very nearly sell my soul to walk its streets once more; when its avenues were dusty and its storefronts weathered wood, when the girls were thin and lusty and the Ivy House still stood; when Main Street ran a rutted course and blooms were yet a bud; the only ride to town, a horse; and gold was in our blood; when the Hangman’s Tree served nickel beer, and the Cary House was new; lamp-lit saloons exuded cheer and frosty mugs of brew; the three mile house was always full, lake Tahoe days away, and folks who stopped at Hangtown almost always came to stay. Father in Heaven, hear my prayer. Dear God, please grant my plea. If I could just awaken there. If time could set me free. If once more I could stroll its streets and once more breathe it’s air, I know there’s souls aplenty Lord, who could benefit from prayer.
HANGTOWN, aka PLACERVILLE 1849
The sun was high, the humidity low, and the air hung heavy with the scent of Manzanita, the drone of insects, and the obnoxious screech of valley jays. We trudged on with determination all day long and right at dusk we reached the crest of a pine-covered ridge. “Over the mountains of the moon, down the valley of the shadow, ride, boldly ride, the shade replied, if you seek for El Dorado.” So says ol’ Edgar Allan, and Lord knows Poe is well acquainted with shadows. There below, basking in the last red rays of the rapidly setting sun lay the storied metropolis of Hangtown. A small tormented creek meandered through a series of deep, pine-lined ravines, and clinging tenaciously to each bank, at close intervals and in no apparent order, squatted several dozen shake roofed structures reminiscent of the clapboard shanties that graced the Irish community back home. In addition to the rustic, wooden framed structures were numerous log cabins, and on the periphery of the settlement and lining Main Street on either side, an endless sea of tents glowed hospitably from the lamplight within. The oak scented smoke of countless campfires hung thick in the motionless evening air, and the entire hollow twinkled in the light of countless lamps and flickering candles. Laughter and jocularity rose spasmodically from a number of well lit gatherings down below, and a melancholy rendition of “Little Annie Laurie”, scratched out hesitantly on a pair of slightly flat fiddles, rose plaintively from a massive canvas covered structure in the center of the scene. We eventually found access to the main street and proceeded slowly and deliberately in the waning light until we reached a large open area in front of the crowded tent. This was evidently the heart of downtown. Main Street, lined on each side with false storefronts, dropped in a gentle grade from the east; widening and splitting as it approached a long row of canvas covered shops. At the east end of this row of shops stood a bell tower as high as any building in town. Main Street proceeded west, past a number of dimly lit but well patronized saloons, and Center Street led quickly toward a row of barns and stables which faced the rear of the shops to their south and hung precariously over the banks of scenic Hangtown Creek to the north.
IT SEEMED AS THOUGH I COULD ALMOST HEAR THE STARS
Twilight arrived early that evening. The storm abated, and despite occasional flurries the moon shone down at intervals through a partly cloudy sky, lending an eerie translucence to the scene and casting curious shadows on the glimmering snow. The breathtaking beauty of the mountains once more overcame me. The magnificent ponderosa pines leaned and swayed precariously, each bow hanging heavy, laden with a mantel of white. The air was still and silent, with only the occasional pop of an overburdened limb disturbing the quiet as it echoed from the canyon beyond. Smoke boiled and billowed from a forest of stovepipes, and the sound of kindling being chopped rang at intervals from a series of locations and echoed from the ravine. I stood for a long time, shivering and staring awestruck across the snow-covered Sierras. I’ve never experienced air fresher, shadows deeper, or a scene so extraordinarily quiet and pristine. You’ll laugh and think I’m crazy, but it seemed as though I could almost hear the stars. On the afternoon of the fifth day, a bitter north wind whipped down from the high country. The storm returned with a vengeance and the temperature dropped to around thirty degrees. I pulled my chair closer to the potbellied stove and poured myself some coffee from the gray graniteware pot. As twilight approached, I sat staring out the window and listening to the moan of the howling wind as it tore at the shingles and rattled the chimney cap. I could hear the hiss of sleet as it began filling the ruts and hoof prints in the muddy street, and icicles began to form and hung in profusion from the eaves. The sleet came down fitfully against the window and periodically a gust of wind would find its way down the stovepipe and the old cast iron heater would belch smoke from around its dampers and red hot lid. After a while the rough plank roof began dripping and leaking like a sieve, and one by one a strategically placed company of pots and kettles joined in a chorus of plinks, plops and piddles as they filled quickly with their captured leakage and began splashing rhythmically on the floor. Clearing a spot on the frosted windowpane, I squinted and peered outside. The snow was coming down in earnest now, and the street was entirely abandoned, with the exception of a few hardy souls on the boardwalk by the bell tower. I warmed a blanket for myself, kicked back in my chair and leaned against the wall. The stove dampers were wide open, and I remember watching the firelight dancing on the wall. Then the cobwebs came and darkness took me in.
Mosquito Road winds along ridge top and ravine and eventually crosses a lava strewn flat. Here in the midst of pine needle covered hillsides of red clay and granite, some ancient, unrecorded volcanic action has created an unlikely landscape of unearthly geological formations and conglomerated lava. In the middle of this desolate and unlikely location, for some reason known only to them, a handful of Chinese immigrants have established a unique and isolated community. Here these peculiar, standoffish Argonauts prepare their ceremonial teas and enjoy the euphoric contents of their noxious clay pipes beyond the scrutiny of a disapproving society and with little fear of interruption. Finding the occupants entirely sociable, we struck up a conversation and visited for about an hour. And then, our lightly steeped libations consumed and the need for cordiality satisfied, we climbed back in the wagon and hames bells jingling continued on our way. Reaching the summit of a pine covered ridge, we rested the mules briefly and then began our cautious decent into the rugged canyon of the American River’s renowned south fork. The already treacherous thoroughfare soon lost all semblance of a road and gradually took on the unmistakable characteristics of a dry creek bed! Arriving eventually at the foot of a thickly wooded hill, we rode apprehensively to the edge of a deep precipice and stared in awe. At this point the prehistoric gorge was spanned defiantly by a picturesque but unnerving little suspension bridge. Constructed of gigantic, rough sawn timbers, and suspended by equally impressive cables, the primitive little conduit proceeded courageously out into thin air, and then extended precariously at a dizzying height, over a tumultuous rush of rampaging fury. The river was running high with the frigid runoff from the mountains generous and rapidly melting snow pack, and the reverberations of its unbridled onslaught resulted in a primal roar that literally shook the bridge. The midpoint of this remarkable swinging bridge afforded a spectacular vista of the riverbed some thirty feet below. Beneath us, the gut wrenching force of the rampaging river boiled and bounded through a series of violently rolling rapids and unique cylindrical formations which long eons of gradual erosion had carved into the solid granite base. The road swung immediately to the left at the opposite side of the gorge, supported by an outcropping of granite whose overhang provided home to a community of tiny bats. Below us the restless current intermittently exhibited a fleeting streak of silver as a rainbow trout would erupt from the surface in a frenzied attempt to surmount the foaming falls. Irrigated by the rising mists, lush growths of moss clung tenaciously to the rugged bluffs, and here and there a maidenhair fern found a hold and spread luxuriously in the canyons filtered light. Here in this unexpected haven we parked the rig and spread a quilt for lunch. Steller’s Jays piped from the canopy of Live oaks, and as the summer sun shone intermittently from behind a wispy sea of cumulus clouds, the mist that rose from the tumultuous rapids below periodically burst into a brilliant rainbow. The temperature warmed into the low eighties, and we sprawled on our blanket luxuriously full and absorbed the summer sun. Following a long, leisurely lunch, we proceeded across the swinging bridge and began our laborious ascent. The narrow trail ascended the cliff face in a series of narrow switchbacks, which zigzagged back and forth in a gradual climb and periodically afforded an unobstructed view, almost perpendicularly from the trails edge, one hundred feet to the boulder-buffeted torrent below. Negotiating the barely maneuverable switchbacks we eventually approached the top of a pine-covered ridge. The distant roar of the river dissipated and grew silent, replaced by the chattering of the gregarious nuthatches and chickadees which darted in and out of the cone clad bows that hung in profusion from the pine and Douglas fir. Gradually the incessant drone of insects and the familiar but indescribable sound of the breeze in the towering evergreens lulled us into a drowsiness which left us nodding and semiconscious in the gently rocking wagon. The mules set their own casual pace, occasionally addressing a persistent fly with a leisurely swish of their tails, and pausing briefly from time to time to brose on a tempting morsel along the way.
A RUSH IS A RUSH
1859 sounded a sweet note in old Hangtown’s colorful history. As California’s neighbor to the east, Nevada had benefited as easterners poured through the arid, inhospitable country in route to California and its gold. Now the tables turned. Some 100 miles from the Sacramento Valley the remote and previously benign outpost of Virginia City, Nevada all at once exploded on the scene. With the discovery of silver, Nevada’s Comstock Lode began drawing a new generation of Argonauts. They came from far and wide enticed once again by fame, fortune, and unprecedented wealth. Placerville would once again benefit by its fortuitous location. As Hangtown prospered as people poured into El Dorado County for its gold, they would now find themselves strategically located along California’s route to Virginia City’s booming Comstock Lode. The tenacious little city in the ravine would now find the traffic flow reversed, but a rush is a rush. Hangtown’s boom was back. The lure of the Comstock represented an irresistible draw to spectators, prospectors, and speculators of every conceivable kind. Starry-eyed optimists were drawn out of southern California in droves, and the route of choice was the Placerville stage road. Old Hangtown was fast becoming civilized. The city fathers were passing a new ordinance every week. We knew we’d reached a new level of sophistication when they posted an ordinance which prohibited a feller from relieving hisself in the street. The idea, though well received, soon proved impractical and was later amended to apply to Main Street only. That was a relief! Finally they whittled her down just right by adding the clause, during business hours. By 1860 traffic through old Hangtown was thicker than flatlanders at a water rights revolt. You literally risked your life to cross the street. From Hangtown to Tahoe the stations and stage stops were open twenty-four/seven, but if you dared pull off you lost your place in line, and it often took hours for another chance to merge. During the summer the dust was so deep it was like walking through sifted flour, and when it rained the mud holes could claim a horse. It took a good forty-five minutes to drive the length of our booming metropolis, and very few managed the dust-choked travail without stopping in town for a frosty mug of beer. Many colorful saloons graced the now booming metropolis, with each establishment much like the next. The floors were strewn with numerous and sundry containers, strategically placed for the purpose of capturing leakage, and a company of tarnished brass cuspidors stood at the ready along the base of a well polished and ornate bar. Coal oil lamps flickered determinedly from within their soot-choked chimneys, and the atmosphere was permeated with a thick cloud of noxious smoke which belched from the dampers of well-stoked wood heaters and countless cheap cigars. Against the rear wall of the establishment a humidity-ravaged piano bravely plinked out a barely recognizable medley of Irish tavern tunes, in competition with an unsympathetic chorus of clanking utensils and beverage induced jocularity.
A PRECIOUS YELLER SPECK
We’d been painstakingly, and I mean mighty painstakingly, paddling our boat up the American River for about a week. At last we came to the fabled fork in the road. In this case it was a fork in the river. To the left, the south fork of the American River continued its tenacious climb into the foothills and the majestic Sierras beyond; Gods’ country to those who know it best. That way was Coloma, Sutter’s mill, and, just north of Hangtown, that hole at Chili Bar. Most of the traffic was headed in that direction. The water was muddy, the competition fierce, and we’d soon run out of supplies.
To the right lay an innocuous little tributary by the name of Webber Creek, or crick if you prefer the local jargon. The sun was shining; there was reasonably clean water for drinking, and a nice quiet place to pan for gold and camp. The biggest advantage of this little branch is the indisputable fact that we’re already here. Sometimes your best bet is to set your cap and take your shot and claim the duck that drops.
There were three grizzled prospectors here who insisted they’d welcome a little fresh blood in camp. Fifty yards upstream they said, were several holes just begging to show some color. We were bone tired, blistered, sore, and ringin’ wet. This’ll do.
The three gentlemen currently occupying this claim are probably in their thirties or forties. They’re a sight to behold. These rugged individualists don’t encumber themselves with many rules, but they have one creed that many follow religiously: live and let live. They expect people to stay out of their business, and they’re more than glad to reciprocate and stay out of yours. They’re ready, willing, and able, to defend their freedom passionately. Respect their rights and they’ll give you the shirt off their back, threaten their freedoms, and you’ve drawn a formidable foe.
These three colorful characters are the living personification of freedom itself. They’re dressed in tattered pants with suspenders or a wide leather belt. Their shirts are long-sleeved red wool affairs, patched at the elbows with whatever they have on hand. Their pants are loose at the waste, and the legs are either cuffed or tucked into the top of rough leather boots that cover their calves right up to their worn-out knees. Their hair and beards are wild as the rugged country they inhabit, and what little of their faces you’re likely to see, are chapped and weathered and rough as their leather boots. They carry a deliciously rank tobacco pipe and a dandy Colt revolver. They know how to use them, and they fire ‘em both up every day. They have one or more knives that they sharpen religiously on the sides of their leather boots. They’re sharp as a razor and used for pealing everything from pears to opossum. They can stick them an inch deep in a pine stump from twenty paces away. They practice with them daily, and they’re willing and able to stick them in more than a stump. Having said all that, these three guys are the most gregarious, amicable; easy to get along with rascals I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.
These guys have been camped out here on the banks of Webber Crick until they’re almost indistinguishable from their environment. They’ve thrown together a pretty good-sized log lean-to, with a dirt floor and a roof of limbs from Ponderosa pine. The thing leaks like a sieve, but it filters the sun and the wind. They each carry a soft leather pouch of some kind, about the size of a tobacco pouch, and they’re not the least bit hesitant to show us that each of these pouches contains yellow dust. One of these guys called me over and says, “Come here Bud, and I’ll give you a peek at the varmint that’s causin’ the fuss.”
Into the palm of my hand, he pours about a thimble full of these tiny little specks, most of them no bigger than a grain of salt. “There the little critters are.” he says, “There’s about forty bucks worth in this little poke, and that represents busting my butt every day, and wading belly deep in this crick for over a month.” That’s all it took to give me the bug real bad! I grabbed my pan and began a frantic search.
About half a mile upstream, are about fifty men working claims. They’ve graduated from their pan swirling, and they’re tearing the country up pretty good with long toms and sluices. That kind of setup takes rip-sawn planks, which are luxuries we don’t have and can’t afford. Between them and us, are several little waterfalls. The fall closest to us is down in this little hollow with a twenty-foot embankment all around, slippery as heck and entirely shaded from the sun. Bull pine and scrub oak lean precariously from their bare root wads on the eroded banks, and brush, briars, and pesky snakes lurk in tangled profusion at the water’s edge. This area is shaded all day long, and once you’re wet, there’s no warming up.
The oldest of the three prospectors is Zachary. Zachary still has the gold bug, but his gold fever had been tempered by his years and several months of cold, filthy, backbreaking labor. He offered to give me a quick lesson in the use of this ubiquitous, little pan. If I’d had the patent on this pan, none of this manual labor would have been necessary at all. There are probably more than one hundred thousand miners wading the hills and hollows in search of this infernal, illusive dust, and every single soul has a pan! If I could have sold them for a buck a piece, I’d never have to drive a mule again.
Anyway, Zachary and I waded out about knee deep into the ice-cold water below the falls. He reached down and turned over two or three good-sized boulders, and brought out a big panful of the sand and gravel that lay beneath those rocks. “The gold is heavy,” he says, “and it’ll settle into the low spots at the bottom.” Zachary raked out all the bigger rocks and gravel with his grizzly like paw, and then began tipping that pan until he had the water swirling in a counterclockwise motion. He continued swirling that water, and once in awhile he’d stop and pick out the bigger rocks, always watching for anything that shines. He kept that up for about ten minutes, all hunkered over and knee deep in the crick. At last he groaned and straightened up, and handed me the pan. At this point the pan has about a teacupful of sand left in the bottom. “Take the pan,” he says, “Fill it with water, careful now and don’t spill it. Now swirl it real easy, just the way I was doin’, and tip it toward you, just the slightest little bit. Pretty quick you’ll have a little line of black sand along the upper edge of that skiff of gravel.” Sure enough, in a couple of minutes, with every swirl I made, a little skiff of jet-black sand fell in place right at the top of the gravel.
“Now,” he says, “you just keep swirling that gentle like, and watch that line of black sand, and pretty quick if the good Lord’s willin’, the sun will shine on a little speck of color.” Well, between the cold water, the nervousness, and the jaw clenching excitement, my teeth were chattering and I was shivering to beat the band, but I watched that black sand and gently swirled my pan. All at once there was a little yeller speck! Before I could stop that water from swirling, it was gone. I swirled some more, and there it was again. I stopped real careful and showed the pan to Zachary.
Zachary’s leathery face broke out in mighty contagious grin! “Thar she blows,” he says! “Just fish that rascal out of there and put it in something safe. Finish that pan and dig yourself another. If we had some quick,” he says, “a little drop would collect the flakes into one little cluster. We ain’t got no quick,” he says, “so you’ll have to just use your fingers and fish ‘em out. It’s probably just as well,” he says, “That mercury will fog up your memory and addle your brain.”
I collected that precious yeller speck right on the tip of my water-wrinkled finger, and headed out like I’d struck the mother lode! You’d of thought it was the wonder of the age. We muddied that crick for the rest of the day, till the sun went down, the fog rolled in, and the frogs began to sing. My toes were frozen, my fingers wrinkled, and my back too crooked to stand, but there sure enough was gold in them thar hills!
THE LIVING PERSONIFICATION OF POWER ITSELF
On May 10th, 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad, who’d been diligently laying track from the west, and the Union Pacific, who’d been performing the same arduous task from the east, connected track at Promontory Point Utah, signaling the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Without question, as those golden spikes were driven into that last tie at Promontory Point, America’s manifest destiny was achieved. East was symbolically and literally joined to west, and the vast expanse of America’s celebrated Republic truly became one nation indivisible.
Equally impressive as the thoroughfare itself, were its remarkable locomotives. Everything about a steam locomotive is awe-inspiring. The low moan of the engine, the earthy smell of burning fuel, hot steel, and well-oiled brass, and the rise and fall of the undulating rails, are an endless source of wonder for me. A swiftly passing locomotive brings to mind a living, breathing creature. To me, a steam locomotive, belching smoke and billowing clouds of steam, is the living personification of power itself. There’s no other sound in the whole wide world like the sound of a distant train, with its rhythmic rumble and the whistle’s mournful wail. It’s a little like the call of migrating geese as their primordial cries grow faint, and they follow their leader along an ancient path.
Chugging through the Sierra’s aboard a steam locomotive was reminiscent of riding an iron-wheeled wheelbarrow down a cobblestone street, only more gut wrenching and exhilaratingly perilous! The old cabs were cramped at best. The heat off the boiler and firebox was enough to wilt the feathers off a wooden Indian, and you could fry an egg on any surface of the cab. The engineers were hard-pressed to turn around without banging their head on something, and most of the time the cab was full of smoke and cinders, and the floor pitched and rolled till a fellow couldn’t hardly find his feet!
They rarely made headway for more than an hour, without needing to stop for something. If the engine wasn’t low on wood, she was running low on water. There were little wood yards scattered all along the way, and anyplace that had access to water, boasted a gigantic barrel-like water tower, at a sufficient height to deliver water to the thirsty boilers. This process was rarely accomplished without soaking your boots and pants, which was mighty invigorating high in the Sierras. The survey teams worked diligently to avoid grades in excess of 4%, but were rarely ever successful, and failing brakes were an ever-present concern. Steam locomotives make real good time when their brakes fail on a hill. That’s about the only time. Most are outfitted with cowcatchers, but I don’t recall one ever catching a cow.
Occasionally, constellations of toxic, black smoke and carnivorous sparks would inundate the cab, the fragrance of scorched overalls and singed whiskers would permeate the atmosphere, and the place would erupt in flailing arms, as folks sang and danced and swatted smoldering cinders.
The only things more colorful than the engines themselves were the fellows who manned the throttles and made ‘em go. If you had the good fortune to be invited into the cab, you got acquainted with the engineer and the fireman. You could tell which was which; because the fireman had only smudges of soot where his eyebrows used to be. My favorites were Zeek & Zak. One spoke only Irish brogue and the other spoke only German and you rarely caught their drift, unless they were cussing. Zeek was fastidious! He kept a wire brush hanging from his belt and a big bucket of stove-black near the firewall. He kept that whole engine polished up like Grandmas’ parlor stove. The petcocks and grease fittings were all made of brass or copper, and he shined them all up till they gleamed like Teddy’s teeth! He was adamant about keeping the fire door spit-shined velvet black, and every time he got ‘er done, Zak let fly with a chaw of tobaccy. The projectile expectorate would splash and splatter, a wisp of steam would rise from the stained and affronted surface, the cab would light up with profanity, and Zak would swab his chin and bust up laughing! He antagonized poor Zeek at every turn. It fell to Zeek to stoke the fire, and that entailed trips to the tender to bring back firewood. The tender was directly behind and downwind of the engine of course, and that made ol’ Zeek a mighty tempting target! Zak had sworn a blood oath to holler, “hot solder!” before he spat, and he done his best, but he generally hollered after! Zeek invariably came back thoroughly disgusted and sleeve-grooming his ears. SC
It was many and many a year ago along an old stagecoach road, a gold camp flourished in the snow, in the heart of the mother lode. Soon the whole place went to heck, and loath to call a truce, they stretched a couple careless necks with a crudely fashioned noose. So the gold camp grew in infamy. Notoriety done the trick! And soon the little ditch was known as historic Hangtown crick. The camp was christened Hangtown too, in memory of the dead, and far and wide her legend grew as the lawless place them fellas wound up dead! Soon folks rushed in from shore to shore to pan the muddy street, with Hangtown renowned for evermore as the place to come to see them swingin’ feet. The city fathers deemed it wise to spread the gold camp’s fame. Soon gold aplenty became the prize and emptying tourists pockets became the game. When delicate womenfolk arrived the name Hangtown give ‘em grief, so a brand new name was soon contrived in the hope it might provide the men relief. Ravine City was considered, but the womenfolk groaned still, so at last the city fathers changed the name to Placerville. The little metropolis grew and grew and the townsfolk, being thrifty, began providing gasoline to the motorists they could lure from highway 50. Flatlanders now are welcome despite what you may hear, and we very rarely hang one. With ropes now coiled we count each tourist dear. So if you’d like to live on beans out west where skies are sunny, check out Old Hangtown by all means and just to play it safe bring lots of money.
We headed for Hangtown in ‘49, but never showed till ‘50. Between us we had nary a dime. Suffice it to say, we was thrifty! The Sierra Nevada’s are god-awful high! And the dang trail rugged at best. Ma took one look and groaned, “Oh my! We should have stayed home with the rest!” The creek ain’t iced up all the time. August heat is quick to thaw it. It’s just for wading. That's the crime. If there’s gold, I never saw it. The housing in Hangtown leaves much to desire. That’s the case ever’where we went. But Ma and me’s tough. There ain’t much we require, and we had a luxurious tent! The tent’s mighty cozy, though lacking for room, with a dirt floor infested with mice; damp as the dickens and cold as a tomb. The first year I froze to death twice! The wood stove was nice if ya sat on the lid. A bonfire would be better I’m thinkin’. When it dropped below thirty as often it did, it froze finials right off of the Franklin! Flatlanders are welcome despite what you hear. You won’t hang. I can’t even conceive it! We’ve oodles of room and we’re known for our beer. Bring plenty of cash and please leave it. If you’ve got a hankerin’ for livin’ on beans, out west where it’s generally sunny, then check out the gold camps and by all means, visit Hangtown and bring lots of money!
THE TALENT SHOW
WHY I DON’T DO TALENT SHOWS NO MORE!
My buddy and I had taken a load of freight over to a little gold camp in the foothills. The mule throwed a shoe. So we was running late and decided to call it a day and spend the night. The mining camp had a dandy, little community theatre, and, in hopes of killing some time that evening, the folks was throwing an impromptu talent show. There was a fifty-dollar prize for first place, so all the miners was filing through doin’ jigs & flip flops & such, and telling all manner of outrageous, longwinded whoppers that had never failed to bust up Ma & Pa, back home. My buddy insisted that if I was to read a page or two from my journal, they’d be mesmerized. I did and they weren’t! So, after two or three minutes of dead silence and growing humiliation, I was staring at my feet in mortification when I noticed that one of my brogans was untied and fixin’ to fall off. I immediately hoisted my foot up on the high lectern and began lacing my shoe. Well, folks began to marvel at my flexibility and dexterity, and some fellow in the front row asked if I could wrap my leg plumb around my neck! I assured him I could not, and another old guy wagered ten bucks I was mistaken. Confident of some easy cash, I hauled off and swung my right leg for my left shoulder with all the determination I could muster. My loosed brogan flew off, and my big toe became deeply embedded in my left ear, right up to the second knuckle. Instantly, my leg muscles cramped up, in a bunch, and my back went into spasm! Just when I figured things couldn’t get no worse, the frayed cuff of my overalls began tickling my nose, and I went into fits and convulsions of violent sneezing! This sneezing persisted and grew in intensity, until a particularly virulent sneeze went directly down my pants leg, turning my pockets wrong side out and instantaneously inflating my long johns! Reacting quickly, the horrified stage manager immediately dropped the curtain, cracking me on the cranium and knocking me colder than a dogcatcher’s heart! About 45 minutes later, I come to in the local hoosegow, serving a three to six week sentence for vagrancy, disturbing the peace, and indecent exposure. That concluded my stage career. And this concludes my dream.
I remember sitting by a crackling fire high in the Sierra Nevada’s, and listening to the ill-tempered Jerseys filing past with their cowbells clanking, their babies bawling, and the old bull curling his lip and looking for work. I remember standing on the rough plank sidewalk outside the Ivy House, inhaling the aroma of grilled ribs sizzling over Manzanita coals, and watching the massive freight wagons lumber by with harness squeaking, hames bells jingling, and the iron-clad rims of hickory-spoked wheels smashing the gravel to dust beneath their cumbersome tonnage of crocks of butter and barrels of fragrant cheese. I remember believing that my whole life would be a long and wondrous adventure. And it was.
LITTLE FORDS AND WEATHERED WOOD
If I could turn the clock back and live my life once more, I believe I’d take a slower pace, not hurry like before. I’d spend my life in Placerville, when the Ivy House still stood, when the whole town smelled of doughnuts, little Fords and weathered wood; when school was taught with chalk on slate, each hour marked by a bell, luncheon served from paper bags, and a pint of milk was swell! When horse and buggy still raised dust and little Fords were few, when little girls weren’t exempt from lust, but little boys had no clue; when belts were worn with shirts tucked in, and Pomade clogged our comb, when we took our best girl to the dance and palms caressed while walking sweethearts home. I know it’s just a silly dream. I know it can’t come true. I know it just sounds foolish now to share it here with you. But my wish for every one of us is that we’ll live each minute, treasure every hour of life and every loved one in it. Hold tight to your memories of days when life was good, when Main Street smelled of doughnuts, little Fords, and weathered wood.
‘NEATH SKIES OF CHINA BLUE
I spent the best years of my life, up on Reservoir Hill, on Great Grandpas’ 40 acres, outside of Placerville. My days were unfailingly happy, my disappointments few, amid fields of golden poppies, ‘neath skies of china blue. I’ve hiked Manzanita covered hills and orchards lush with pears, with pear juice dripping from my chin, till it washed away all cares. Jackrabbits hid in ambush along each dusty trail, the only other sound, the call of California quail. Blackberries were my quarry, beneath the summer skies, drenched with homemade ice cream, and wrapped in the golden crust of Grandma’s pies. Adventures with the neighbor kids were led by our pet raccoon, with summer nights spent beneath the stars, lit by a flickering campfire and the moon. Holidays meant Granddad’s house, with kinfolk by the dozens, and Great Grandma sharing memories to entertain the cousins. She’d share her tales of days gone by, with eyes welled up with joy, recalling memories from her youth, back when even Grandpa was a boy. And I soaked up each and every word, and treasured every minute, memorizing every face, and each expression in it; praying that my loved ones lives would stand the test of years, and facing disillusionment as reality tempered innocence with tears. Now I too am a granddad, with memories of my own, sharing tales from long ago of precious souls I’ve known. I’ve cherished each and every day, through every joy and tear, and I wouldn’t change a single thing. I relish every year. But oh to be a child once more, and live on Reservoir Hill, and face each day with childlike faith, and walk once more the streets of Placerville.
GLAD DAYS LONG AGO
I remember sitting on Reservoir Hill, while watching storm clouds grow, and listening to the windswept pines as their branches filled with snow; the sense of silence building till it muffled every sound, but the gentle rush of snowflakes as they blanketed the ground; the American River canyon in the fogbank down below, and off in the distance Placerville with street lights all aglow. Just down the hill was Granddad’s home and the warmth inherent in it. If only time were malleable I’d be there in a minute. I see my grandma at the stove with all the family there, my granddad’s sweet, mischievous grin, his white and wispy hair; the glimmer of the window panes, and the old dog at the gate, shaking the snow from his wiry coat and wondering why I’m late. Dear God, preserve our memories of glad days long ago, of happy lamp lit gathering and Hangtown in the snow; of all the precious loved ones who lived and loved but brief. May blessings grace our days, dear Lord, and hope, dispel old grief. May faith assure tomorrows joys despite the winds that chill, and each night bring us dreams of youth, old friends and Placerville.
I remember Farris wheels and sharing cotton candy, walking barefoot hand in hand along a beach that’s sandy; afternoon’s on inner tubes with sunshine on my shoulders, and the smell of roasting hotdogs as a stone lined campfire smolders. I remember sleeping on air mattresses gone flat, ballgames in the meadow, and the cracking of a bat; Kool-Aid on the running board of Granddads’ little Ford, and popcorn at the theater with that gal that I adored. I remember horseback rides and summertime romances, chewing gum scented kisses, and long, slow dances; moonlit walks with pretty girls in soft gingham dresses, thoughtful talks on country roads and warm, moist caresses; and I recall the dawning of an inescapable truth, and reconciliation as the sun set on my youth.
SORROW SLIPS AWAY
Soft through the pines, the summer breeze is blowing, sweet, solemn music to me. Lightly through my mind, old memories are flowing, tender thoughts of what life used to be; souls called away, golden days amid the tall grass; laughter lingers deep in my heart; pleasant moment’s shared, vibrant dreams of youth are ageless. Hope unites though time may bid us part. Shadows of time, when the hours passed in moments, tender moments priceless to recall; futures to share, happy destinies awaiting, summer slipping gently into fall. Seasons quickly pass. Our memories turn to treasure, God’s gift to those who remain. Sorrows slip away, while our hearts preserve life’s pleasure. Grief fades, while joy we retain.
NEATH CALIFORNIA SKIES
Asa Camp was a pioneer, and a relative of mine. My great great grandpa headed west, back in ’49. The trail west was rugged, and the wild Sierras high. The golden prey illusive, but Asa was determined he would try. The plains were fraught with peril, and the road west took a toll. But at last they reached the summit of a steep and piney knoll. Down below was Hangtown, the end of a weary road; the mythical El Dorado, heart of the Mother Lode. There Asa Camp would spend his youth. There he’d wed a wife. There he’d father children through a long, industrious life. But first he made a second trip, In 1854. He knew the long, rut riddled route. He’d made the trek before. This time he brought the Oldfield’s west, in this saga that I’m tellin’. And when their daughter came of age, he married Laura Ellen. They raised four daughters and a son, in Hangtown through the years. They buried Ella on the hill, and persevered through tears. His hands were hard and callused. His smile warm as toast. He didn’t treasure company, but he was a gracious host. He mined the rugged south fork, and lived on Reservoir Hill, panning gold, hauling freight, and ruling home and hearth with an iron will. There his children married. Each lived their life with zest. And great great Grandpa loved them all, but Asa loved the wild Sierras best. He cherished every blessing, neath the California skies. His life was spent in gratitude, and he died with the wild Sierra’s in his eyes.
Houston, Missouri 1890
When my great grandfather, Calvin Casebeer, passed away in 1907, his memories of the Civil War passed with him. Had Calvin been interviewed, we might have read the following:
A quarter century ago, a ragged group of tired old soldiers met at the home of Wilmer Mclean near Appomattox courthouse, and Robert E. Lee read and signed a document written in General Grant’s own hand, whereby all agreed that all confederate troops were free to return home “without the taint of treason.” The Civil War was over, the Union whole, and the nation at last at peace.
This year being the twenty-fifth anniversary of that hallowed event, we’ve assembled today at a humble but well kept residence just outside Houston, Missouri, for the purpose of visiting a genuine veteran of that horrific conflict. Around midmorning Mrs. Casebeer accompanied her husband down the front steps of their Ozark Mountain home and into the shade. Mr. Casebeer is small of stature, uncommonly affable, and solid as seasoned hickory, with sharp, unblinking eyes. I shook his hand and our interview began. “To begin with Mr. Casebeer, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?”
Mr. Casebeer adjusted his galluses, pushed the brow of his straw hat back from his face, gave a gravelly but pleasant chuckle and began to fill us in. “Well, my name is Calvin Casebeer, and I was born back in the spring of 1838 in Defiance, Ohio. Cassie and I were married in ’62, our son Lewis was born in ’63, and over the next twenty years we were blessed with eleven children. We buried two of ‘em back in Ohio, and then in ‘85, soon after laying little Eva to rest, the rest of us pulled up stakes and made tracks for the Ozark Mountains of south central Missouri, hopin’ for a fresh start. The last five years or so, I’ve been traveling the hills and hollers of the Ozarks, spreading the gospel and relying on the goodness of others. We’re poor as church mice, and the misses is darn near thin as a rail, but the Lord’s been good and all the kids are thriving.”
“I’m certain our readers will be pleased to hear that you’re doing well, Mr. Casebeer. What else can you tell us about your family history?” “Well sir.” said Calvin, leaning into his walking stick and smoothing his long, gray whiskers, “My great, great, granddad, along with his brother and his folks, arrived on the shores of Pennsylvania back in the autumn of 1724. My great, great, great granddad Johann Kasebier kept a journal on the voyage over, and word has it that journal exists to this very day in the castle archives back in Germany.”
“Johann passed away shortly after their arrival in this country, and the family had a mighty hard time of it back in the colonies. My great granddad, John Casebeer, was a soldier in the militia during the Revolutionary war, and served in the Continental Army with Captain Davidson’s division out of Bedford, Pennsylvania. I’m mighty proud of my family, and I’m mighty proud that when my time come, I did my part to keep this God fearing country whole and free.”
“Well Calvin, may I call you Calvin?” “Yes sir.” “Calvin, what do you remember today about your service to this country during the Civil War?” “Plenty!” answered Calvin, tucking his shirt in and puffing up just a tad. “I remember ever’ bit of it, like it was yesterday.” With that, Mr. Casebeer blotted his forehead with a kerchief and began the following yarn. “Following the siege at Fort Sumter, back in ’61, Governor Morton ordered that a camp for volunteers be set up back in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and my brother John and I caught the stage and headed out. I wasn’t but 23 and took the whole grievous adventure for a lark.”
“We spent a week or so there at Fort Wayne, bivouacked with other boys from all over the country. They rousted us out at first light on the morning of the 22nd of November and, following a physical exam, we all gathered on the square where Mayor Randall addressed the regiment and presented us with a crisp, new flag. Once the sermonizing had petered out, they swore us all in as members of the Indiana 44th Infantry with these questions: Do you solemnly promise to love this flag? We says yes sir. Do you promise to honor it? Yes sir! Do you promise to obey it? Yes sir! Do you promise to sustain and defend it, even unto death? Yes sir! I, then, in this presence and before these witnesses, solemnly join you to the American flag: and what we have now joined together let not Jeff Davis or his minions put asunder. Then they paraded us through town. Folks was waving and hollering and carrying on something fierce, and we all figured we was mighty fine!”
“Then we set off marching, and marching, and marching, and we kep’ on marching till hell wouldn’t have it! For the first few months we didn’t fight nothin’ but hunger, frostbite, fatigue, and the measles. It seems like it snowed all through November, December, and January. Most of us were cold and soaked and sick. You’ve never seen such misery in your life. Then, about mid February, we marched through the snow to Fort Donelson, and that’s when all hell broke loose!”
“Colonel Reed marched our outfit to the foot of a good-sized hill, infested with Rebs and swarmin’ like a beehive. We formed ranks at the bottom, the order was given to advance double quick, and we ducked our heads and charged like hell, cheering and shooting into a hail of bullets. Nearing the top of the hill, the confederates dove for cover in their entrenchments, and us right on their heels. Shells was fallin’, sabers flashin’, and most of us drawing blood for the very first time. You can’t even imagine, unless you was there. Once the Rebs was dug in good and returning fire in earnest, General Grant himself gave the order to fall back to the brow of the hill. We dug in there on the hill that night, cold, wet, and hungry, retrieving the dead and listening to the cries of the wounded. Next morning the enemy surrendered and we searched the hill for our fallen comrades. Two of the 44th were missing, 34 wounded, and 7 found frozen to the ground in their blood-soaked uniforms.”
“After that came another world of marching through hell and the battles of Shiloh and Stone River. During the night of June 10th, news reached our encampment of the fall of Vicksburg and of General Lee being routed real bad at Gettysburg. We figured for certain the war was all but finished. That was one of the few good nights I remember from the whole campaign. By September of 1863, the Rebs had withdrawn all the way back to the northwest corner of Georgia’s confederate heartland. The confederacy had its back against the wall. Digging in along the west branch of Chickamauga Crick, them tenacious Rebs was bristled like a bulldog with a bone!”
“September 19th found us bivouacked at the ol’ Poe place, just northwest of the crick. The battle had been arduous, and we’d been rode hard and put up wet. Late that evening, a commotion in the confederate encampment across the crick signaled the arrival of the Rebels reinforcements. The arrival of Longstreet and his company marked a considerable change in the mix. Leaders on both sides immediately began rethinking tomorrow’s battle. For ol’ Bill Rosencrans and Braxton Bragg this was in one sense just your typical garden-variety chess game. Each of ‘em would engage his men in a time-honored confrontation, attacking, retreating, and maneuvering, in an effort to sweep the board. But these pawns weren’t inanimate chess pieces; this was flesh and blood, and before noon the next day the Chickamauga was runnin’ red with it!”
“Occasional skirmishes continued through the night as each side exchanged potshots at the muzzle flashes of the other. Then, around mid-morning of September 20th, the action began in earnest! For several hours the Federal troops successfully turned back the confederate advances; wave after wave was repelled and driven back to the crick. Just prior to noon, the confederate forces, along with Longstreet’s reinforcements, began a concentrated assault on the Union front. At some point during this conflict, perceiving an imminent threat to Thomas’s forces to the north, ol’ Rosencrans reassigned Woods division to address the threat. As them reassigned troops pulled back to assist Thomas, the effect was like pulling your finger from a dike! Within moments, the punctured Federal lines busted open like a saturated earthen dam, and the wall of Rebs swept over ever’thing in their path.”
“The battle of Chickamauga was about the bloodiest of the war, and the casualties were overwhelming. The 44th Indiana infantry only had three men killed, but 10 men were unaccounted for, and 59 were shot up pretty bad. My brother and I were counted with the wounded. John had been run over by a runaway chuck wagon, and I’d been shot through the leg. The field hospitals had performed amputations, patchwork, and temporary fixes, until their medical supplies were exhausted, and then they clenched their teeth and proceeded without ‘em.
Field hospitals during the Civil War were easily recognizable, from some distance, by their enveloping clouds of blowflies, the agonizing moans from tent after tent of dying and demoralized men, and the sickening stench from pungent piles of putrefying feet. Sanitation was abominable, disease rampant and medical care mortifyingly crude. Advances in the dispersion of death and dismemberment having been vastly improved since the Mexican/American conflict, .58 caliber Minnie balls, now administered through rifled muskets, could be dispatched from three or four hundred yards away, with great precision and unprecedented effect. Shattered bones were generally the result. For want of disinfectant, the best hope of preventing infection, gangrene and an excruciating death, was immediate amputation. Surgical kits bore a striking resemblance to carpenters’ tool kits; surgical saws were the instrument of choice, and the slang “sawbones” for field surgeon, struck terror in the hearts of battle hardened veterans.”
“Following the Battle of Chickamauga, the trafficking of dead and dying soldiers from points north and south was slow and steady, and the pitiful laments of the injured rose from the wagons in a low guttural moan that for many was only answered in the thralls of death. By the afternoon of the 20th, John and I were in the back of a wagon on our way to a field hospital. We slept, best we could, shielding our eyes from the glaring sun and our ears from the sounds of agony and despair. Even in sleep, the scenes of battle repeated in my mind, and my consciousness reeled from the stench of death and war. War has always been an enigma to me, an irreconcilable amalgamation of glory and Godlessness.”
“Even now after my baptism of fire and a near death experience, I view it with a strange mix of abhorrence and wonder. It’s as though, despite its revulsion and abomination, war has some redeeming quality. I can tell you this about war; if war possesses any redeeming qualities, they’re not apparent out on the battlefield where gallant young men are killing and being killed. The redeeming qualities of war are pretty illusive to those who observe its horrid stench first hand. War’s finer facets, in order to be fully appreciated, must be polished, politicized, and refined, by some well bred, manicured, articulate, gentleman back home. Back home the less desirable aspects of war may be overlooked. One may sip their brandy, smile benevolently, and observe, ‘Ain’t war inspirin’’.”
“Clearly America’s collective conscience, as reflected by our chosen leaders, requires constant scrutiny and surveillance. Even in a democracy of, by, and for the people, justice and equality are only as perfect as the conscience of that people. Even America’s grand and glorious democratic republic reflects not only our goodness but our greed. Freedom is not a privilege to be taken lightly. Freedom is a right and a responsibility, a perishable torch to be diligently tended and faithfully passed along. Freedom burns within our hearts, ignited by the founding fathers, and it falls to us to keep that flame alive. America’s most trusted and time-honored institutions are only as righteous as the hearts of our citizens; our most godly leaders only as just as the collective conscience of their constituents, and the most telling measure of a nation’s heart is the compassion and the unity of its people.”
“In the case of the Civil War, both sides sought peace. The north was bound by the patriot’s sense of E PLURIBUS UNUM, and the south was bound by home and hearth and their ancestral way of life. Few would argue that either was served by war. Death and destruction may quell revolt, but they rarely result in peace. Don’t get me wrong. I realize that freedom requires commitment, commitment requires perseverance, and perseverance requires the will to act. When freedom and just causes are threatened, honorable men respond. But surely war is the last resort of those who know its grief. Surely for reasonable people there’s a better way. Freedom is every heart’s desire and every just government’s goal, but it’s a mighty illusive concept when you’re at war. Freedom is nearly impossible when you don’t have peace.”
“So what, in your opinion Mr. Casebeer, is our best hope for peace?” “Well sir,” Calvin responded, briefly removing his hat and running a red bandanna over his wispy, white hair, “Ol’ Abraham himself summed it up far better than I ever could.” With this Mr. Casebeer reached into his pocket, produced a tattered remnant of President Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, and read aloud, “With malice toward none; with charity for all: with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have born the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” With that, Mr. Casebeer smiled warmly; parted by offering the unfailingly compassionate hand of true Christian fellowship, and Mrs. Casebeer assisted him back to the house. And I collected my scribbled notes and came away enlightened.
Ol’ Calvin was a preacher, though he never had a church, and he seldom ever faced a crowd to preach. Great Grandpa combed the Ozarks on a big old dappled horse, in search of every soul that he could reach. Ol’ Calvin kept a bible and he read it every day. He searched for words of comfort he could give. He seldom spoke of judgment, and he seldom spoke of death. He preached that folks might know the Lord and live. The folks could hear him coming when he traveled down their lane. Great Grandpa always whistled as he rode. Folks always came out smiling and that made him mighty proud. They were always glad to see him and it showed. He’d share his tales of Grandma, all the kids and folks back home, of what he’d done that week to serve the Lord, but mostly Calvin listened, because Calvin really cared. He would listen by the hour and not be bored. Sometimes they’d kill a chicken when they heard ol’ Calvin come. He shared a bunch of suppers on the road. He carried little with him but his Bible and the Lord. He reaped the seeds of kindness that he sewed. Ol’ Calvin raised a big, ol’ beard to shade him from the sun. As he grew old, his beard grew long and gray. He’d part it in the middle when he sat down to a meal, and it framed his weathered face when he would pray: “Thank you Lord for these good folks, and for each gift we share. Thank you for your son and for his touch. Thank you for your promise, and for your tender care. Thank you that you love us each so much.” Calvin loved the Ozarks, all Gods’ people, and his Lord. He never looked for faults. He looked for grace. His sermon was the life he lived; his entire message, love. And the love of God beamed brightly from his face. SC
Her stripes were worn and faded, her fabric, torn and frayed. Tattered stars hung loosely now, weakened by old battles and decayed. Still, she hung with dignity, despite her ragged state. Her very fabric promised hope although the hour was late. Just then, as dawn was breaking, came a rustling in the trees, a disturbance in the morning mist, and a cool, refreshing of breeze. The flash of nearby lightening, pulses quickened by the thrill, while meadows shook with thunder and a deluge took the hill. With that, Old Glory caught the wind, unfurled, as if to march. Despite the hail that tore her hems, she took the field and stretched out stiff as starch. And those who saw this marveled and recalled old glory’s youth. And hearts swelled near to bursting, quickened by old loyalties and truth. And every soul saluted, while new hope replaced old fears, and each heart pledged allegiance, and sealed their pledge with gratitude and tears.
When our hopes and dreams grow faded and we miss the friends who cared, and old times are consecrated by the golden hours we’ve shared; when the streets we tread so long ago come back to haunt our dreams, and we treasure those we used to know and conjure up old schemes; when old associates fill our heart and refresh our weary mind, and we feel as one though miles apart and old woes wax sublime, when our flesh at best contains us and we’re far from hearth and friend, may fond memories then sustain us till we meet at last again.
UP ON THE HILL
Up on the hill where the pines grow dense; where the fields are green and the sky immense, scatter one day my last remains, to be drawn in the earth by the gentle rains. Gladly did I tread this place with the gentle breeze upon my face, a faithful dog for company, and benevolent sun beaming down on me. Thank the Lord for the time we had, when rest was blessed and toil was glad, when joyous hearts rejoiced in truth, and we shared our hopes and dreams and youth. Look to the heavens bright and blessed. See me satisfied, caressed. Know at last I’m free from care. My dust is here, but my spirit there.
Stark and leafless branches, festooned with buds of spring, while robins dot the greening fields and unseen crickets sing; evergreen branches dripping ice, bright droplets melting snow, while rivers crest their muddy banks and tributaries flow. Up above the timberline granite boulders shed fresh sand, that's carried by the snow-melt to create new spits of land. Spring's elixir swells the branches of sapling sprigs and shrubs, while Momma bear slips her winters den to emerge with wrestling cubs. The sigh of old-growth evergreens as evening breezes shift, trout feeding at the sparkling edge of an ice-flows lazy drift; the roaring of a waterfall as rainbow mists drift by, the primordial cry of eagles and their circles in the sky. There amid bright granite peaks, that's the heaven my spirit seeks; lazy sweeps on the gentle breeze, at one with stars and streams and trees; high in the Sierras where the winds blow free, with only God for company.
Each and every day, each and every one of us, regardless of our circumstances, has a choice. We can squander our time fingering old welts, second guessing past decisions, and tormenting ourselves over the poor choices of others; or we can embrace a new day, brimming with opportunities for doing justly, loving mercy, and building foundations for a bright new tomorrow. Time is precious. Choose wisely.
Shannon Thomas Casebeer